Shavuot Torah

Shavuot and Closure—An Acknowledgement of the Past Before Offering First Fruits and Welcoming Revelation

This year Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the end of the fiscal year, and, for our family, the end of living in the home that we have occupied for the past seven years.  Past are the trials and triumphs of acquiring new knowledge and navigating challenging social situations in the previous school year; present are the last appeals for gifts before July 1; and the future is unknown for how it will feel to walk away from the home that has witnessed so many firsts in our family: the first time our sons met each other after our second son was born, the first Havdalah when the sons commenced the ritual of adding tasting to the smelling of the spices, the first family movie night when everyone actually agreed on the same movie.  Even in the excitement of the firsts of the coming year, letting go of the place that held the firsts of yesteryear is difficult.

In some ways, the biblical custom of offering the first fruits on Shavuot seems to acknowledge this.   The ritual as described in Deuteronomy 26 includes a storytelling mechanism that allows the person offering the fruits to share the challenges and feats of the past.  And while in this case it is the sharing of a collective past of the Israelites—starting with their ancestor who was a wandering Aramean—by the time that the person gets to the end of the ritual, instead of speaking in the collective voice, the offerer speaks individually:  “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, Adonai, have given to me.”

Assessing our own individual past, acknowledging it and coming to terms with it, seems a healthy way to move forward as we ready ourselves to accept the gifts of our future.  Judaism gives our communities collective ways to reflect on personal life experiences and our responses to them.  This year, during the time of Counting the Omer—amidst the packing, the schlepping, and the stress—I have taken time out to reflect not only on the past year, but the past seven.  This process helps my find a bit of closure as I look to the future that I hope will be filled with new adventures, sacred moments, and revelation.

Our cherished and wise colleague, Rabbi Cindy Enger, gave me a great tool by which to do this in her brilliant teaching when I heard her speak some weeks ago.  She shared with her community a teaching by Rabbi Nancy Flam who drew from the pioneering work of a Jewish educator named Rachel Kessler (z”l).

Nancy suggested four areas to reflect on when coming to closure—in preparation for a new beginning.

  1. First articulate the gain: What are the gifts that you’ve received by being part of this past experience?
  1. Second, acknowledge the loss: Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing the gifts of having participated in this experience, it is important to acknowledge the sadness that may come with closure.
  1. Next, establish personal power: Where else in my life do I have or can I create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this past experience?
  1. Finally, establish realistic continuity: While not denying that we are coming to a true ending, is it possible that there will be places of continuity with people and practices established as part of this experience?

This season of anticipation—of receiving our ultimate guide for taking new steps in our lives—seems especially apt for my family and me.  Yet, for so many of us, as we enter the summer, we each have the opportunity to reflect on the past year, appreciate special experiences within it, and move forward with both excitement and gratitude.  So if you, like me, will be awake through the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, you just may have the opportunity to reflect on an experience from the past that would help you embrace the promise of an enlightened tomorrow by following these prompts:

  • What I’ve received from this experience that I will always take with me is…
  • What I will miss about this experience is…
  • Other places where I have or can create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this experience include…
  • I hope to establish realistic points of continuity by…

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.


Social Justice Torah

Shabbat Tzedek- Memorializing Deliverance

As many of us ready ourselves to speak on Shabbat Tzedek in light of its proximity to Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I find this week’s Torah portion a great place to start.  I have always been intrigued by this week’s parashah.  Here we are, just on the cusp of the climax of one of the greatest stories of the Jewish people.  Bo opens with a close-up on God telling Moses that Adonai has hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that God’s miracles can be witnessed by all.  The action builds… We pan out on the scene of locusts devouring Egyptian crops.  The drama continues… Roaring wind and thunder intensify the hail scene.  Then, lights out!  Darkness permeates Egypt.  All that can be seen is the light of the Israelite camp.  Next, a moment of intrigue; the Israelites are ordered to “borrow” gold and silver from the Egyptians.  And now, the moment we’ve been waiting for—Moses tells the Israelites of the final plague from God that will result in freedom.  We squirm with anticipation.  But then, just as the Israelites are about to flee from Egypt and cross the Sea of Reeds… Just as they are about to taste freedom for the first time in 430 years… Just as we think we can barely stay in our seats any longer—the action stops.  Everything pauses.  What’s going on?

On the one hand, it might be that the upcoming action is too significant to merely rush through.  The proper observance of the ritual of the Pesach (as Gunther Plaut explains, the “preparation of deliverance”) must be established.

On the other hand, and more significantly for us today, this pause calls attention to the the Torah’s shift in emphasis from the current action to the necessity for memorialization of the deliverance in the future.  In Exodus 13:9: “And it shall be a sign upon your hand, and a memorial (zicharon) between your eyes, that Adonai’s teaching may be in your mouth.”  Again in Exodus 13:16: “It shall be a sign upon your hand and for frontlets (totafot) between your eyes: for by the strength of God’s arm, Adonai brought us forth from Egypt.”

In these two verses, the word referring to the object that must be placed between the eyes is different — “zicharon” in verse 9 and “totafot” in verse 16.  Totafot is often translated as frontlets or bands.  Yet, there is room for another translation of totafot if we follow the connection to “hataf” (to preach or to speak).  Rashi explains, “Totafot would be an expression denoting ‘speaking’ and corresponds to zicharon because whoever sees them (the tefilin) bound between the eyes will remember the miracle (so they become a zicharon, a reminder) and will speak about it (so that they become totafot, something that causes one to speak about the miracle).”

In every age, we must memorialize the miracle of this radical deliverance and keep it at the center of our vision.  This memorial “between our eyes” must get us to speak on behalf of justice in our own day.  Memorializing deliverance is different from simply celebrating our freedom.  Memorializing deliverance means remembering the cruel oppression of our past, both our physical and spiritual oppression. Yet, owning up to the responsibility of our identity as Jews means not only recognizing the oppression in our own past in Egypt, but understanding that mitzrayim still exists wherever the narrowness of oppression continues to rear its ugly head.  And, for many of us, mitzrayim exists in our own cities as racial inequality persists.

Lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson declared on our bimah this past Shabbat:

“All of us are burdened in this nation by our history of racial inequality.  We’ve all been compromised, we’ve all been sabotaged, our ability to be a free place has been undermined by this history of racial equality that we haven’t talked about, and I think we need to talk about it…”

At dinner afterward he continued:

“There are zip codes in this city (Chicago) where the majority of children are born into violent households and live in violent neighborhoods, and they go to violent schools, and by the time they are five they have been traumatized by that violence, and we’re not doing anything to respond.  We’re responding to our wounded warriors coming back from Afghanistan… because we realize that trauma is a disability we have to treat, but there are thousands of children in this city that are carrying that same disability, and we’re not responding to that.  I do think that all of us are implicated by that.” 

Pastor Michael Nabors from Second Baptist Church in Evanston called us to action with the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr:  “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

We know that we will not be judged by how well we speak on this Shabbat Tzedek or how well we preach in the wider community on MLK Day, but how we act alongside others when that day has passed.  Therefore, I’m grateful for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s meaningful call to action on Tuesday, January 19th: Call-In Day for Sentencing Reform when we will have the opportunity to urge Congress to pass the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (S. 2123).  Let us stand up and speak out with our vision centered on tzedek.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.



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What It Means to Truly Live Jewishly

I first heard of Emmanuel Levinas when I was a first year student in rabbinical school.  Rabbi Levi Lauer, then head of Diapora-Israel relations and scholar at Shalom Hartman Institute, addressed first-year students in hopes of recruiting some of us to attend Hartman’s seminar for rabbinical students.  In the midst of his remarks, he summed up the essence of the philosophy of Levinas  in one sentence.  I still remember Lauer’s phrasing: “When you meet another person and look into their eyes, you take responsibility for them.”  This notion of the mutual responsibility of humanity resonated deeply.

I barely studied Levinas in rabbinical school– just one hour in a class with Dr. Eugene Borowitz.  It wasn’t until I came to Chicago, three years out of school, that I began to study him.

When I arrived to Chicago, I almost immediately found a perfect chevrutah, the extraordinary Rabba Rachel Kohl Finegold.  We decided to learn together Nine Talmudic Readings by Emanuel Levinas.  She was the Gemara queen and I had “a bit” of a knack for the commentary by Levinas.  We managed to get through four of his transcribed lectures before life intervened in our intensive studies.

One lecture stood out among the rest– “Temptation of Temptation”.  There, he analyzed the passage from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 88a-b) beginning with the midrash of God holding Mt Sinai over the Hebrews like a titled tub.  In his analysis, Levinas criticizes “Western Man” for his constant dabbling into ideas, never committing to any one thing.  Yet, in our receiving of Torah, the Israelites accepted the ethic of action– of responding to the Other.  At our core, according to the ideal of Levinas, we understand that “the messenger is the message.”

I have studied this lecture intensively three times now.  First with Rachel, then with a beloved colleague and conservative rabbi Adam Kligfeld.  And this year, I studied it with high school senior Caroline Kaplan.  I want to share with you excerpts of how she described the experience in her Dvar Torah at her Kabbalat Torah ceremony:

For months now I’ve had a sticky note up in the corner of my computer. It reads, “We live in a world that gives no room to be what we dreamt of being”.  Poet Adrienne rich wrote this. She was a woman, a Jew and gay, none of which are easy to be.  …

I connected with this quote because she articulated the hopelessness I’d seen around me.

 How can we move forward when there is so much to do, so much to repair, and so many distractions that keep us from truly committing to do good works?

The answer is at once both obvious and complicated; so of course Torah and the great scholars who study it could only give the answer.   I was looking for a place, something to ground me, to give me purpose. I needed to reconnect. That’s what I told Rabbi Conover, and she immediately knew what I needed. “Levinas!” she said, and she couldn’t have been more right.

Together we read Levinas’s Talmudic commentary entitled “Temptation of Temptation”, which made me understand what it means to truly live Jewishly.

The passage in the Talmud begins with a famous Midrash.

“God inclined the mountain over [the Israelites] like a tilted tub and said: If you accept the Torah, all is well, if not here will be your grave.”

Levinas saw this not as being threatened with physical death, but instead the threat was an even greater one. If we didn’t accept Torah we were to spend the rest of our lives just wandering in the desert—tempted by all kinds of ideas and interests. The wandering and never committing to a real ethic would’ve been the greatest death of all.

The passage in the Talmud continues  on with the response of the Israelites when we are offered the Torah.  We responded:  Naseh vinishma, “we will do, and we will hear “ implying we will do before we hear.

So what does it mean to do before hearing?

According to Levinas it means to truly respond to another’s need, without weighing all the available opportunities, or contemplating all the other options. … According to Levinas,“Consciousness is the urgency of a destination leading to the other person and not an eternal return to self.” So much of my learning in secular education and in my life has been about dabbling.  Learning for knowledge’s sake, being well rounded. … Torah teaches us that there is only one true piece ofknowledge that we must learn: “The messenger is the message.” Our duty is to respond to their needs, their voice.  It’s a different kind of learning and being in this world. And that’s what I’m embracing when I receive Torah this evening. That’s the way I want to live in this world, by acting. Not just so I can become what I dreamt of being, but so I can listen and respond to others—help their dreams to be realized too.

In my life I’ll extend my hand whenever needed. I’ll wander through this desert with a purpose. This connecting with others is what I need to do, hearing the needs of the ones aroundme and responding.  This is how the people like …family have begun to change the world. In the years to come I’ll join them in making room for dreams to be realized, those who commit and act, those are the ones who repair the world, and that is the type of woman I’m becoming.

My family at home has certainly helped me strive to become this kind of woman, yet my family here at the Temple has inspired and embraced my development as a Jew and as a person in crucial ways.

Emmanuel Levinas (photo: CC BY-SA 2.0)
Emmanuel Levinas (photo: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.

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Marriage Equality: The Long Parade of Our History

Last night, I went to see a high school production of The Laramie Project—the play that portrays the people of Laramie, Wyoming in the wake of the murder of Matthew Shephard, a gay college student.  A class of high school juniors and seniors at an exclusive, private school here in Chicago put on the production.  I went to support one of our synagogue’s high school students who played a few roles in the play. Fighting tears through much of the second act, I was heartened by the portrayal of brave priest who organized vigils and preached compassion and healing.

I find myself increasingly using every opportunity I have to carefully teach Biblical texts that have been used to perpetuate a close-mindedness that has too often led to violence and oppression of the spirit.  Midrashim (ancient and modern) abound illustrating creative and compassionate ways to interpret our Torah, while giving kavod to the text.   Owing much to brilliant colleagues and other thinkers including Judith Plaskow, Rachel Adler and her son Rabbi Amitai Adler—to name a very few—I have found new ways to understand ancient texts, adding new blessings and rituals to fit current situations.

I love bringing these values home to my two sons Eli (6) and Ben (4).  In the fall, I took Eli and Ben to Springfield, Illinois for a rally and lobby day on Marriage Equality.  My sons already had experience with the Pride Parade literally strolling aside Temple Sholom’s float.  I thought this would be another fun, memorable, and meaningful experience—especially when we found out that my parents would meet us there.  The only problem… I didn’t read the weather report.  In Springfield, we stood outside in a downpour, barely shielded by the boys’ kid-size umbrellas.  Finally, we found some space underneath an overhang near the steps of the capitol building.  By this point, our oldest son was crying—loudly—“I want to go home!”  I bent down so that we could make eye-contact.  I said, “Look around.  Many of the people who are here did not have such an easy time growing up, falling in love and marrying the person whom they love.  When they see you, they have hope that the future might be different for your generation.”  Eli, who is an old soul, met my eyes and said, “I know, mommy.  I know.  But this is NOT FUN!”

So, the day was memorable and meaningful, but as Eli said, not fun.  Yet, it made an impact.  The next day, Eli shared his experience with classmates during circle time at Chicago Jewish Day School.  Ben, along with his friend who has two daddies, has become known in his Gan Shalom classroom as an “expert” on Marriage Equality.  When we heard the news that Marriage Equality passed the House in Illinois, we sat in the boys’ bedroom making celebratory phone calls to my parents and my grandmother.  It felt like we all could share some small part in this collective victory.  After the phone calls, when my husband arrived home, we all sang the Shehechiyanu thanking God for bringing us to this sacred time.

Toward the end of the Laramie Project, a character shares how moved he was during the first Homecoming Parade following Matthew Shephard’s attack.  He said:

As the parade came down the street … the number of people walking

for Matthew Shepard had grown 5 times. There were at least 500 people

marching for Matthew. 500 people. Can you imagine? The tag at the end

was larger than the entire parade. And people kept joining in.

I feel like I am joining in this long parade of our history—following those who have attempted to bring more compassion into this world.  For this, I am grateful.

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.